Halloween and Mental Illness Stereotypes

Mental illness stereotypes and Halloween generally go hand and hand. This is an unfortunate tradition and these are the reasons why. 

Growing up, I didn’t see the harm of attending haunted asylums or seeing people dressed up as psych patients. It seemed innocuous. As a former psychiatric ward patient and someone who deals with mental illness daily, I understand the harm done. It’s harmful because it shapes the negative public perception of mental illness and increases the stigma.

Mental Illness Stereotypes

There are a variety of mental illness stereotypes. The mental patient restrained in a straight-jacket is the most common stereotype. Other stereotypes include Psycho‘s Norman Bates, Halloween‘s Micheal Myers, The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, and The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lector. The unintended consequence of these well-known films shows that the public should fear people with mental illness.

Costumes, Decorations, and Attractions, Oh My!

Furthermore, there are costumes, decorations, and attractions that add to the stigma. These costumes include the Smiffy’s Women’s Psychotic Nymph Costume, Amscan’s Asylum Straight Jacket Halloween costume for men, Nutty Gone Wild Adult Costume, and a Psychotic Ward Adult costume. There is a Pinterest board filled with decorations based on Halloween asylum ideas, and attractions still based on asylums. Sure, these costumes, decorations, and attractions are intended to be all naughty fun, but it perpetuates the stigma of mental illness. Close to two decades ago, the Surgeon General said that that stigma is a significant obstacle for people reaching for help for mental illness.

Mentally Ill People are Not Violent

The facts about mental illness and people with mental illness go against the grain with public perception. A third of people think people with mental illness are likely to be violent, but the reality is people with mental illness are likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violent crime. It’s people who do not have mental illness who often commit the violent crimes and homicides. Unfortunately, when mental illness is brought to attention, it’s usually within the context of violence.

Political Corrections, Halloween, and Mental Illness

Look it may be perceived as too politically correct to show people that attending a haunted house attraction based on the psych ward or wearing a psych patient costume may be harmful to others, but what if there was a haunted house attraction based on a cancer ward? What about if it was a haunted hospital filled with veteran ghosts who died by suicide and had post-traumatic stress disorder? I’m reasonably sure the public wouldn’t be keen on those two ideas as Halloween fun.

Here are some ways you can raise awareness about mental illness and mental illness stigma during the Halloween season.

For Costumes

  1. Allow family, friends, and your community to know of your concerns.

  2. Post your concerns on companies’ Facebook pages.

  3. Send your comments to the companies’ contact page.

  4. Contact public managers of local stores and politely inform them that mental illness related costumes they sell increases the mental illness stigma, and they may relate your concerns to the higher-ups.

For Asylum Attractions

  1. Alert your local NAMI affiliates, family or friends or email the sponsor of an attraction. Post on the company Facebook or Twitter pages.
  2. Contact the sponsors and ask them to remove stigmatizing scenes and advertisements.
  3. Ask as a group rather than as a single person when raising awareness about an offensive stereotype in an attraction.
  4. Contact local newspaper editors and television news directors.

Some people may say “It’s Just Halloween,” or “Don’t be so sensitive.” They may also tell nastier comments.  Don’t argue back and take the high road. Stay polite and respectful.

 Halloween is a time for fun and mischief, but not for increasing stigma. Please be sensitive to people who have a mental illness or those who have a loved one experiencing a mental illness this Halloween season.

Have a safe, fun Halloween season!

Photo Courtesy by V. Theepio via Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode